Part 13

Jonas fought desperately with the controls of the Lunchbox's magnetic anchor, trying to funnel any excess power into the mechanism to buy more time. The little ship, however, had been built for efficiency and he couldn't find enough spare energy to make an impact. With the engines running at their maximum sustainable capacity, all he could do was delay the inevitable.

Smashing both fists down against the console with a wordless snarl of frustration, he spun and hurtled out of the hatch leading to the rest of the ship. Darting through the enclosing corridors of the vessel he made his way to the equipment storage and grabbed the first bulky toolkit that came to hand.

"Doesn't look like any of these are going up my ass today, Xander," he muttered ruefully as he hauled the case out of the equipment store. Turning left he continued on down the length of the Lunchbox into the main furnace chamber. Pushing the door open with one shoulder, he stepped carefully over the frame of the hatch.

The two hulking, smoke blackened cylinders of the furnace engines stared at him like a pair of angry red eyes. Jonas looked at them for a moment, before his gaze slipped away to the main power conduit and his eyes lit up. Darting over, he dumped the toolkit on the floor and opened it.

"Alright, some disassembly required." He grabbed a portable drill then reached up to the large metal plate concealing the conduit itself. One by one he removed the bolts holding it in place, then took the plate in both hands with a grunt of exertion. "Bloody hell." Swivelling unsteadily away, he placed it on the floor and turned back to the conduit arrangement. Licking his lips, he picked up a screwdriver and a tiny hand welder, then reached up to the circuitry.

The burning blue of the welder began to hurt his eyes after a few minutes, but he didn't bother getting a pair of goggles. Blinking several times he pushed on, augmenting the circuitry with a haphazard arrangement of transistors and resistors to boost its power flow capabilities. With his jaw clenched tightly, Jonas examined every weld, making sure the connections were firm. Time was not on his side, but the last thing he needed to do was blow out the main power conduit and the engines along with it.

After several minutes Jonas finished the ad-hoc adjustments and dropped the tools back into their box. He darted from the engine room, hurtling through the corridors of the Lunchbox back to the bridge. Leaping to the navigation console, he crossed his fingers for a moment and looked up.

"Help me out with this one, Big Man." With that he reached down and gently turned the engine power dial up into the red section of the increments. He held his breath for a moment and glanced around. No alarms? No explosions? No instant vaporisation? Things were looking up…slightly.

"Okay, how am I doing?" He stepped over to the sensor array and checked the progress of the Gehanon. A snort of annoyance slipped out when he realised the time he'd managed to buy. Ten minutes more, at most.

"Better than nothing," he muttered under his breath. Pressing a button he switched the screen view to the scan data from Alsace IV's atmosphere. "Huh?" He did a double take, bringing his face in close to the screen. One section of data flashed red and he ran his eyes over it quickly. "Gotcha!" Clicking his fingers, Jonas reached over to the mass scanner, and pressed the start button. Slowly but surely the machine began building up a single, three dimensional snap-shot of the Gehanon, deck by deck with high intensity scanner beams. This time, however, the sensors were tied into its operating system, armed with fresh information.

As the scanner performed its cycle, Jonas darted across the room to check the magnetic anchor. All readings were tentatively brushing against the red sections of their respective counters. He chewed a knuckle absently as he rechecked every figure, searching for any power spike. Things remained mercifully level, however, at a reading that, while not advisable, was manageable. For now at least, the anchor would hold the weight of the massively larger ship.

Lucky she's not giving full-thrust, Jonas thought. Glancing at another panel showing the Gehanon's power output he let out a sigh. The factory ship's engines were barely operating at a third of their capacity. If the thrust increased too quickly there was a very real possibility that the engineering tugboat could be ripped in half by the forces exerted. With little else to do, Jonas simply hoped things stayed as they were.

He moved back over to the mass scanner, where the three dimensional photograph of the Gehanon's interior had almost been completed. The last few lines flashed across the screen, filling in the top of the image with the final decks and hallways. His eyes flitted across the screen, looking for his target amongst the hundreds of wandering human shapes that filled most of the ship. Jonas' eyes narrowed as the scan picked up the Lunchbox crew, the only life signs on board the massive ship. But he was searching for something else. After a few minutes of scanning the still image, rotating it round and round on the screen, he spotted his quarry.

"Bingo," he murmured, pressing a button that magnified the furnace chamber of the Gehanon, where a blob-like shape had been picked up. The corresponding screen of the main sensor array belched out a sea of readings and formulae on the anomaly. "Now then, what the fuck are you?" He pressed several more buttons, directing high intensity scans through the engine room into the strange cloud. Readings began popping up on the screen as the scan ran its cycle, and Jonas's eyebrows shot up in surprise.

Battering the keyboard, he brought up the data from his initial scans of the nearby gas giant, shifting them onto the same screen. Glancing from one to the other he swallowed hard at the sight that met his eyes. The anomaly appeared to be made up of a combination of heavy gases, some that the scanner couldn't identify. And in dozens of select areas in the swirling, storm-filled atmosphere of Alsace IV, the same reading had appeared.

"You've got to be shitting me," he accused the computer, his eyes widening at the sensor readings. "There are more of these things?"

Darting over to the communications array, Jonas brought up the transmission from the naval flotilla, his jaw tight with a new sense of determination. Flicking up their warning transmission alongside, he scanned the identical security protocols that protected them with a critical eye.

"You're good," he murmured. "But I'm better." His fingers rattled over the keyboard as he unleashed a ferocious attack on the firewalls and security measures that protected the transmissions. After leaving essentially a computer virus to wale away at the defences, he started a trace program running to retrace the transmissions they had received from colonial command. Legally or not, he was going to find out exactly what they had stumbled onto in this God-forsaken corner of the galaxy.

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